Flagler Beach City Manager William Whitson got hit with yet another storm Thursday evening, this time from waves of witheringly critical residents, business owners and some members of his own commission who spoke of low morale, poor communications, lack of urgency on some projects, a “toxic work environment” and an instance of Whitson hanging up on a resident who was reporting a flooding issue. The criticism inevitably spread to commissioners by association.
It was not a good night for a manager who’s been lurching from crisis to crisis since summer, some of them of his own making, some of them not, and who’d hoped to show his mettle to the commission in the way he’d navigate the city out of Hurricanes Ian and Nicole’s shoals. Instead, what he got Thursday was an critical report card from constituents and in front of an overflow crowd and television cameras.
But his defenders rallied, namely Commissioners Jane Mealy, Ken Bryan and Deborah Phillips, who took particular issue with descriptions of toxicity at City Hall, since it also implicated them, and described an unchanged atmosphere of respect and praise even through disagreements, which they did not discount. “I was a little shocked by those comments also because I always thought that I was approachable and easy to talk to,” Bryan said. “I know that a lot of people don’t like me. That’s the way life is. But you know if I’m upsetting you in some way, you can always call me and say, you know, this is what’s going on.” Both said government moves slowly and has its own processes.
“For some reason, it just seemed to come out of nowhere, in my opinion, since Nicole,” Phillips said of the criticism. But she differentiated between that and lack of communications, which she said is still absent.
The discussion on toxicity was prompted by the longest public comment of the evening, near the beginning of the meeting, by Scott Fox, a former member of a city advisory committee and the owner of Tortugas, the restaurant on A1A. He said he spoke as a private citizen, though his remarks were also clearly intended as a marker ahead of the March 7 commission elections, when two seats are up: those of Bryan and Phillips. Fox made it explicit.
“Morale of the businesses, the citizens and the employees is the lowest I have ever seen in seven years of residence I’ve been here,” Fox told commissioners. “Citizens are intimidated by city leadership to speak publicly in comments,” Fox said. “Businesses are scared of retaliation and employees, particularly city employees, are scared to speak up for fear of their livelihoods. The same employees that have given their hearts and souls through all of the adversity the city has overcome. Nobody deserves to work or live in a toxic environment. The core of this city is resilience, and to overcome by working together as a team. History of the past 12 months have proven we have lost that unity. How do we recover it?”
Fox asked the commissioners to re-evaluate why they’re in their seats, to seek an anonymous employee evaluation, without consultants, and to solicit residents’ input even when it’s not what the commissioners want to hear. “I’m talking about the ones that are hurting or in need. The victims of these past two storms I’m sure would like to see some of you considering they haven’t seen much love lately.” He then indicted them directly: “Your body language, your tones, your disrespect is visible to all,” before describing the city’s poor communications as “the Achilles’ heel of this current leadership.”
Fox made no distinction between the city administration and the commission, instead adopting the approach that a distinction is irrelevant when one speaks for the other. But he wasn’t telling the commission anything new: commissioners themselves in their evaluation of Whitson had almost all criticized him for his poor communications, and some criticized him for an imperious, thin-skinned style.
“Lack of communication to residents, lack of communication to businesses, lack of communication with the county, and particularly lack of communication amongst our own leadership has been a pattern for over a year now,” Fox said. If we fail to communicate in day to day affairs, how can you as leaders expect us to have faith in the preparation of generational changes expected to begin in the next few years? The pier, A1A, dune restoration, hotel, parking, business development. Those items will affect our livelihoods, our investments and the future generations long after your tenure here is gone. Right now that faith is absent.” He outlined the past year’s many administrative failures and missteps, and a habit of deflecting blame. He closed with the March 7 reminder: “As citizens it is our responsibility to hold elected officials accountable for their actions and that begins starting tonight with both the incumbent and the future candidates.”
He was followed by Rick Belhumeur, the former two-term city commissioner who just announced another run, and who tends to speak in requiems even in good times. He piled on, complaining about a new Veterans Park monument that was not the agreed-upon plan, before other residents began a stream of complaint: about flooding and the stormwater system, including from a South Flagler resident made homeless by the flooding, about the bridge being kept open during storms, about lights on the Flagler Beach bridge that have been out for weeks, though it is the city’s responsibility to maintain them (in accordance with a contract with the Department of Transportation), and about lacking information. “There should be information out there for anybody that just Googled Flagler Beach to know what the situation is–what’s closed, what’s opened, what the dangers are, what the rules are,” Carol Fisher, a former business owner in town, said.
Then it was commissioners’ and Whitson’s turn. Bryan, the city commissioner, said he was unaware of a “toxic environment” at the city, and that anyone can talk to him or other city commissioners. He did not bring up Whitson’s hang-up on a resident. “But a toxic environment. I mean, I’m very bothered to hear about that. And I think that it’s incumbent on all of us as commissioners to find out where that might be generated from,” he said. “A lack of communication? I agree.”
Commissioner Jane Mealy was taken aback by the characterization of a toxic environment. “I’m not sure why I’ve not gotten that explanation as to somebody who I thought was a friend, all of a sudden thinks I’m the worst person in the world,” Mealy said. “I’m still the same person I’ve been since I got on this commission, I’m the same person I’ve been my life actually. So I don’t know why, I have not yet to have it explained to me. If we don’t agree, somebody can get up here and say something. And we may not agree with it. That doesn’t mean we didn’t hear you. It doesn’t mean that we think you’re a terrible person. You have your opinion. We have ours. We have procedures that we like to–not like to, have to, follow.”
She added, referring to Whitson (whose name at one point she could not recalled, saying “whatever his name is” instead): “As far as the toxic environment in the workplace, a few of us sat through a recent staff meeting. And this man almost cried at the end of the meeting because he was praising the staff so strongly. ‘I love this team’ is I think a direct quote. And it was said with so much emotion.”
But neither she nor Bryan squared the seeming contradiction between their description of Whitson as an engaged and emotional champion of city and staff with the way he’d behaved toward a resident.
“I called the city manager the day of the storm and said, You promised to be out here,” Susan Price of South Daytona Avenue told commissioners. “I was told he had more important things to do. And he hung up the phone. Okay? This is unacceptable. completely unacceptable.”
Whitson issued what he described as an apology even as he framed it in what has become a standard form of public non-apologies: casting doubt on the complainant’s sense of having been offended. “For the record, I would like to publicly apologize to Ms. Price,” he said, two and a half hours after price spoke and after she’d left the room (and only after Commissioner James Sherman asked for an explanation of the hang-up: none of the other commissioners had until that point).
Whitson said he’d been out surveying damage. “I was in the middle of the disaster,” he said, “and I did not have time to talk to her about her one singular concern at that time. So if she took offense to that, I’m sorry. But I was really in the middle of 50 things at that time. And I just did not have time to speak to her at that time. And if I offended her, then I’m sorry. And I’ll own it. That is not normally the way I communicate with citizens and residents.”
That part of the discussion had been an interlude between broader discussions on storm recovery and residents’ complaints regarding that. Phillips and Sherman questioned whether and how the city was staying on top of drainage issues. “What we’re doing is we’re taking all complaints from the storm and making a list,” Whitson said, with follow-ups planned. Meanwhile he said the city has been enacting a “technical memo” to address what it could. ” It’s going to take a long time to fix because it’s a very complicated system. And again, we’re in the process of assessing it technically. And we’ll be following up on what some of the things are that we can do.” He said he will develop a “regular maintenance program” that will be contracted out.
Commissioner Eric Cooley wasn’t convinced, saying the commission had long ago made those aims part of its budget. But Cooley had built his own list of grievances, among them the missing lights on the bridge, poor communications, commission direction the manager wasn’t following, and that “the sense of urgency gets heavily cranked up on the items that we budgeted, and said we are going to do this year.”
Cooley, too, discounted the reference to a “toxic environment,” but read city emails, such as one from the fire chief and Whitson’s agreement, forbidding employees from speaking with commissioners on “operational issues.”
“So I do not want anyone pushing out a message that that’s happening,” Cooley said of employees communicating with commissioners, “because I will categorically disagree with you. And I also have the documentation showing where the employees were emailed themselves saying don’t talk to commissioners.” He said “dozens” of employees are being stonewalled.
Whitson for his part blamed the storms for work delays on numerous matters, leading Mayor Suzie Johnston to come as close as anyone did that night to ask how many people it takes to change a light bulb when she was asking about bridge lights. “In the meantime, can we just change the bulb until we get someone that’s certified?” Whitson said no, since it’s actually not a light bulb issue so much as an electrical issue. The lights are still out.
G. Mac says
Obviously, need to rethink our ‘leadership’ or lack thereof in these trying times
tom dooley says
Are You Kidding Me? You live on a “sand bar” (mantanzas to ponce inlet) and it’s the city’s fault because of flooding? Worrying about bridge lights when the city shouldn’t even be in any kind of agreement with the state for the lights, let them handle it. Employee morale low? Once again are you kidding me? It’s the economy stupid. Like our great Governor just said “everyone needs to just chill out”. 2 hurricanes within 6 weeks apart that’s why everyone is stressing. The city has bigger fish to fry and a lot of work to do then this petty b.s. Let the city manger and the employees do their job and quit hollering,screaming and calling everybody names. Take a chill pill or like the Eagles and Jackson Brown said “Take It Easy” Love you guys and gals of FB good luck.
Crusty Old Salt says
Well said Tom Dooley.
Boyd Venable says
G. Mac says
Obviously you don’t live in Flagler Beach.. Yeah take a chill pill when your home flooded twice in 5 years!!!!
We KNOW we live in.a barrier island. Thanks
tom dooley says
Your welcome. Wife and I have been here since the 80’s and vacationing here since the late 60′. You only 5 years? How is it the city’s fault that you bought land that has been flooding for years? By the way I said “sand bar” not “barrier island”. Know the difference? Not trying to be mean but to blame the city? No reason too blame anyone but yourself for buying your property without doing your “homework” first. Yes unfortunately for all us that live here it will happen again and believe it or not we will have a major hurricane one day and people will refuse to leave and die. But to blame the city manger and employees and commissioners is non sense. We too saw Ken and Deborah out and about but nobody else? Maybe they were elsewhere but we didn’t see them?
tom dooley says
Your welcome. Wife and I have lived here since the 80’s and been vacationing here since the 60’s? You? 5 years? And its the city’s fault you have been flooded out twice in 5 years and still living in the same place? Are you kidding me? It’s your fault for not doing your “homework” not the city, the city manager, the city commissioners or the employees. By the way I said “sand bar” not “barrier island” . Know the difference? No? Ask a “local”. Not trying to be mean; but once again ” Are you kidding me?
Roll a Hard 8 says: says
Toxic City Managers are a plague in Flagler County.
This man has to go too.
The Flagler Beach City Commission and these residents and business owners need to straighten up. The city just got bombed by back to back storms. The beach is crumbling, and instead of understanding it’s trying times, that so much good has happened, they show up and dump on the city manager? Smells like a political move in the wake of a natural disaster. Dirty Flagler Beach politics. Typical of the Mayor and her boyfriend Commissioner. No sunshine law violations happening there, I’m sure.
G. Mac says
Ok James, have you been to the Flagler/Volusia county line??? The mayor and commissioners have been not just surveying the damage, but rolling up their sleeves and helping.. NEVER SAW the city manager, he must have his head buried in the non-existent dunes..
Not a political issue, a community issue. The Mayor has been totally in top of this… Idiotic to bring up her personal life!
Happy Thanksgiving to those who have a house that didn’t flood!! Peace out
The Villa Beach Walker says
Funny. I was one of the Flagler Strong volunteers filling sand bags at the Villa Del Mar church before Ian and I saw the City Manager and two Commissioners there. Commissioners Bryan and Sherman know how the shovel works. The Manager was maning logistics of getting trucks full of sand.
The Mayor, her boyfriend commissioner, a rejected by the voters commissioner who wants to get back on the board and a ranting restaurant owner are leading the charge to fire the city manager. Pretty obvious and pathetic.
The infrastructure has been crumbling for many years with these bozos calling for ROLLBACKS every year instead of planning for the future with small incremental increases like a normal city does. That is what good stewards of self sufficient cities do.
Flagler Beach residents voted Belhumuer out for a reason after 6 years and probably wouldn’t be too happy to hear he posted on social media after he lost that those who didn’t vote for him were “crapheads.”
We can do better than let these few ruin the city more.
agreed he had his chance and voted for Whittson , we need new blood
Q Tolier says
Lol. U know sunshine is being violated! And now Cooley is backing Belheumer’s run for Commissioner. What a joke. Belheumer is to be blamed for nothing getting done in years. Cooley acts all high and mighty at Commission meetings and thinks we don’t see him for what he really is.
After living here for 5 years, I agree that it is a toxic environment. Vote major changes at the ballot box. The situation with damage to A1A and subsequent repair is a perfect example of what can be done by competent people.
The Villa Beach Walker says
A1A is a state roadway that runs through the City of Flagler Beach. The local City government has to go to the State Department of Transportation for any action or activity regarding A1A.
The Villa Beach Walker says
A1A is a state roadway that runs through the City of Flagler Beach. The local City government has to go to the State Department of Transportation for any action or activity regarding A1A. The repairs were managed by a State contractor and the County engineer.
Willy Boy says
A commissioner referring to the city manager as “whatever his name is” says a lot about the communication atmosphere.
The Villa Beach Walker says
Do you think it’s appropriate to mention someone by name without asking them first when you are being live streamed and recorded in a public hearing? Hint. It’s not appropriate. Why? Why aren’t you using your real name to post here Willy Boy? That public hearing isn’t a court proceeding. It’s an open public meeting. Not calling out people’s names is completely appropriate Willy Boy.
The Village Beach Walker is misrepresenting the situation, which had nothing to do with the appropriateness or inappropriateness of calling someone out by name. A commissioner was discussing protocol regarding commissioners talking to staff, or not being allowed to talk to staff, when Commissioner Mealy jumped in to refer to City Manager William Whitson–whose directive they were discussing, whose name is used about 100 times at every meeting, and who was sitting at the table–but couldn’t recall his name. She apologized and blamed the length of the meeting to that point. It is also disingenuous for the pseudonymous commenter to call out another pseudonymous commenter for not using his or her real name.